I started a food blog a month after I turned 19. I was still in college and named it Dourmet, a portmanteau of "dorm" and "gourmet." Get it? I imitated the Gourmet font (RIP, love you forever) with Microsoft Word and a screen capture. This all felt high-tech and very clever at the time.
Looking back, both the title and concept were cloudy, even misleading. At first glance, dorm-gourmet implies a seat-of-your-pants creativity—you know, turning dining hall ingredients into a triple-tier cake, or hosting a Friendsgiving feast with a mini fridge, microwave, and zero other appliances.
But I had other appliances. Besides an oven and stove, I also had a food processor, blender, and spice grinder. I even had an ice cream machine. I stowed these in my closet, amid dirty clothes and used textbooks, and toted them to my friend’s kitchen every time I wrote a post.
Which is to say, I was cooking in a dorm, but in a fully stocked kitchen in a dorm. Is that cheating? 19-year-old me shrugged. If my readers cared, they never told me.
Take "readers" with a tablespoon of salt. These were, unfailingly, my family and friends and family friends. But it was mostly my mom reading my blog, because no one else really knew about it. Which sounds sad and self-deprecating. But I don’t mean it that way. If my blog had taken off and I had become the next big thing, that would have been cool. And of course when I started Dourmet, I hoped that would happen. It took a couple years to realize it probably wouldn’t.
I kept writing anyway.
I did a lot of unpaid, food writing-ish internships. At one of them, the summer before my senior year, someone said something that I still think about: “There’s no such thing as a food writer. Just a writer, who writes about food.”
This was at one of the many “lunch and learns” I attended as an intern at The Daily Meal. The (many) other interns and I squished into a conference room and ate lunch and learned something. Say, how to get a job. How to beef up your Twitter. How to get a job by beefing up your Twitter.
At this particular L&L, a well-seasoned food editor shared career advice. I listened. I nodded. I scribbled in my Moleskine. But even that afternoon—and increasingly so ever since—all I could think was:
I don’t agree.
There is such a thing as a food writer. It’s my job at Food52. And it was my job before I got here. And it was the reason I was at that L&L at The Daily Meal in the first place. And it was the reason I started Dourmet. And it was the reason I did, well, most of the things I did.
But this editor's lesson was still: There isn’t food writing. There’s just good writing. Grabby first sentences. Precise words. Airtight research. Killer quotes. It’s not what you write about. It’s how you write.
So let’s go with that.
I’m just a writer. I write about roast chickens and chocolate–peanut butter cookies. But let’s say, tomorrow, I come into work and my editor tells me, "We need you to write a football scouting report." Because I’m a writer, I should be able to do this.
Just one quick question: What's a scouting report?
I bop around Google to find out: Oh, it’s a player-focused game preview. Cool. Let’s look at an example for inspo. Cool, cool. I can do this. All I need to do is figure out: Team rankings. Team players. Those players’ respective positions. What those positions mean. (The quarterback is important, right?) Which players are injured. What all these nifty-sounding terms mean: pass rush, run game, drive start. While we’re at it, what do all these yards mean? Seems like you can give up yards. Is that bad? And seems like you can average yards? But how? And speaking of yards, how many points do you score in a touchdown? Does it matter if you catch the ball in the end zone or run into the end zone with the ball? And what if you throw the ball through that giant yellow thing? Do you get more points that way? Wait. Are they called points?
Now imagine a sports writer writing about a roast chicken.
Stephen King once wrote, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." I would add a few words: If you want to be a food writer, read about food a lot and write about food a lot.
Also, if you want to be a food writer, maybe roast a chicken. Roast a lot of chickens. Roast all the chickens. And then spend a lot of time thinking: What goes well with roast chicken? Bread. Okay, how do you make bread? Now make a loaf of bread. And what goes well with bread? Butter. What type? And why? Can you make butter? How? And then turn that into 500 words. By tomorrow.
If there are sports writers, travel writers, news writers, and features writers, why can't there be food writers? Sure, there are the Frank Brunis of the world, writers who thrive in multiple fields. But for those who care about a single specialization—and, for what it's worth, each specialization is vaaast in its own right—why not capitalize on that passion? With enough research, I could write about football. And I could write as if I'm excited about it, too. But I'd be lying. And you'd be able to tell.
Let's say, then, that you're like me: You're smitten with food publishing. And you're just starting out. What now?
It's a catch-22. If you’re a teenager, still in school with no connections and no experience, who the heck is going to publish you? The easy answer is: probably no one. But the trick answer is: you. You’re going to publish you. And your mom is going to read it and tell you, "You’re doing great, sweetie." And she may be twisting the truth and that’s okay. Because the point isn’t to be great.
The point is to get better. To learn as you go. To find your voice. Hold yourself accountable. Stay current. Challenge yourself. Figure out another way to say "salty" because you’ve already used that word and what if, maybe, you talked about the air by the ocean instead?
And if you get some recognition while you’re at it, that’s cool, too.
ANOTHER SECRET TO GOOD WRITING: COFFEE
Are you a food writer? What advice do you have for your peers? Share in the comments below.